In a way, I was rather relieved when my one of my ex-therapists (let’s call her Nina), did and said something so objectionable, that all of the other objectionable things that she said and did paled into insignificance. I had been feeling as if my previous annoyance might have been unjustifiable, and I was worried that I had not been ‘giving her a fair go’ due to the fact that she looked as though she was still in high school.
Never mind the fact that she twirled her hair during sessions, while I was pouring out my emotions and pain. Perhaps I was being over-sensitive when I found that mildly irritating and somewhat offensive. And maybe her bizarre habit of pretending to draw diagrams and write sentences with her hand on the wall next to her chair, was actually helpful to some of her other clients. As if somehow it would help me to better understand what she was driving at – it didn’t.
But it was her attitude and approach to self-harm that, quite literally, made me see red. It made me want to quit therapy, and it almost led me to write a letter of complaint to her employers, and if you knew how very much I hate complaining about anything, you would understand just how angry I must have been. Just the other day I paid twice the advertised price for a piece of cake in the canteen because I didn’t want to make a fuss – you get the picture.
It wasn’t even the fact that she called self-harm ‘unhelpful’, though that in itself betrayed, at worst, a worrying lack of insight, and at best, a worrying lack of care in her use of words. As someone who has been self-harming for the last couple of years, I would agree that it is not a particularly healthy coping mechanism, and ultimately it is not ‘helpful’ to recovery. However, it is a coping mechanism, and as such, it is helpful to the individual who uses it. Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not in any way advocating self-harm, or trying to undermine the immense and courageous efforts of those who struggle daily to stay free of it. That’s why there is a *trigger warning* at the start of this post – I would hate for anything I say to act as a catalyst for anyone’s self harm.
I’m just making the point that if it was not helpful in one way or another to the individual concerned, they probably wouldn’t do it. I’m not defining or restricting the ways in which it can be helpful. In fact, the longer my self-harming goes on, the more I realise that it can mean very different things to different people, and different things to the same person, over time. Self-harm evolves, it changes, it’s never quite the same tomorrow as it was today. And the reasons, motivations, and meanings behind it are myriad.
The incident that took my breath away (though not in a positive sense), involved both a visual image and a statement that she used in response to the fact that I had said that sometimes, although I was desperate to self-harm, I just didn’t have the time to do it. I think it was the image, more than the words, that I found so utterly abhorrent. It was as if she had suddenly entered a very private part of my psyche, and had just defiled it by trampling all over it.
“Surely it only takes a couple of minutes – you just go into the bathroom and make a quick cut?”. Her right hand made the action of drawing a razor blade across her left wrist. The room was suddenly silent – the air laden with assumptions.
I wouldn’t expect most people who did not have personal experience of self-harm, to have a great deal of knowledge or understanding about it, although it saddens me that there is still the widely-held misconception that all those who self-harm are wanting to end their lives, whereas in fact they might be fighting in the only way that they know how, to stay alive. However, I think it’s only right to hold professionals to a different set of standards: to expect a more in-depth level of knowledge and understanding, and a sensitive and appropriate response to a client’s discussion of self-harm. For some, even raising the topic openly in therapy may feel risky and may be a tremendously painful and uncomfortable experience.
I had never told Nina what form my self-harm took – cutting may be one of the most common, but there are many other methods. I had also never told her where I self-harmed. In my case, although I do cut, it’s most frequently on my hips (and at that time, was almost exclusively on my hips). It felt as though her words and actions were a gross generalisation of an incredibly complex phenomenon. But more than that, I found them insulting in the way that they seemed to display a lack of care, interest and sensitivity in my own particular circumstances – not only in the form that my self-harm took, but in the reasons and the motivations behind it, and in what it was trying to express. It felt like a complete disregard of me as a person – although I didn’t have the language to describe it as such at the time, it felt incredibly invalidating.
Quite uncharacteristically (I hate confrontation even more than I hate complaining), I plucked up the courage to tell her, at the end of the session, that for me, self-harming takes a hell of a lot longer than two minutes. Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, with small children and a husband almost constantly around, I can rarely self-harm completely on impulse. Plus, as any parent will know, a mother’s trips to the bathroom are rarely unaccompanied! In addition, I have to hide my ‘tools’ very well, not only for the sake of keeping my self-harm secret, but so that they are not accessible to my children. That’s aside from the fact that I find I need to make several cuts in one sitting, and that clearing up ‘the evidence’ after the event, takes time.
All of which adds up to substantially more than two minutes.
[There are a large number of helpful and informative websites by charities and national or governmental bodies of various kinds, for those dealing with self-harm, and for those supporting them. There are some in particular, that I hope to reference and write about in future posts. There are also a very large number of excellent blog posts out there on self-harming, including these, on ten common self-harming methods, and on two less frequently talked about methods, trichotillomania, and dermatillomania. Finally, I was very much struck by this post, entitled ‘Self-harm is normal’ – a real plea for openness and acceptance of something that is ‘normal’ not in the sense that it should be ‘normalized’ within society as a whole, but by virtue of the fact that it is part of the language and landscape of so many different types of mental health difficulties.]